Gentleman Jack Review: HBO Flaunts England’s First Modern Lesbian

Gentleman Jack

Suranne Jones captivates as historical feminist and lesbian Anne Lister in a messy, but insightful miniseries.


The show (of which five episodes were available for review) is part period drama, part love story, and part feminist treatise all at once while showcasing a wit so sharp it can slice right through you. It tells the story of historical figure Anne Lister, whose 4 million word diary (you read that right) left us with enough insight to be able to call her England’s first modern lesbian.

We follow her as she returns home to Halifax from abroad in 1832 after yet another of her lovers leaves her for the traditional security and respectability of heterosexual marriage. She soon meets Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), a 29-year-old spinster by the era’s standards and attempts to rebound from her last relationship by capturing the younger woman’s heart.

The show gets off to a sputtering start in the first episode where its quick-cut editing and fast pans are reminiscent of another BBC show’s, Sherlock, worst tendencies. Thankfully, these are just as quickly dispensed with and Gentleman Jack takes off like a freight train.

Jones as Gentleman Jack herself is captivating. While direct address might be one of the most overused tropes thanks to the explosion of shows that relied on it in the 2000s, Wainwright and Jones know just how to perfect it. At first, Lister’s asides to the camera (presumably taking the place of some of the notes in her diary) seem superfluous. After all, Anne is so forthright about who she is and what she thinks, what do we really need it for?

Then comes a moment during her seduction of Ms. Walker in episode two where we hear her laugh charmingly during her visit, “I haven’t been here four hours, how did that happen?” But the remark is punctuated by a sly look to the camera and a rakish lip-bite that adds a completely delicious layer of intent. It lets Anne play with us in the way society won’t and gives Jones even more opportunities to shine.

It’s also yet another way for Wainwright to show us the whole Anne. Because this is what truly sets Gentleman Jack apart from almost every other drama centered on a woman, especially a middle-aged one, and even more especially a queer one. The show doesn’t treat her as a paragon of feminist thought, a victim of her era and circumstances, or as a curiosity. It steadfastly refuses to treat her as anything less than completely three-dimensional.

For every scene where her incredible intellect is on full display—most often seen when she runs circles around her business rivals, the Rawsons (Shaun Dooley and Vincent Franklin)—there’s another where she’s at her most vulnerable, weeping in a heap, her heart breaking at the thought of never finding a true partner to spend her life with. It’s impossible to stress just how much this matters.

Depictions of imperfect women are increasing, but they’re still not the norm. And Anne is hardly perfect. She’s as much a product of her time as she is a creature outside of it, which means as a wealthy, landowner she’s trying to operate within classist and sexist systems, not break those systems. More than once we see that while she’s no Scrooge, she’s hardly a bleeding heart for her land’s tenants.

The show doesn’t treat her as a paragon of feminist thought, a victim of her era and circumstances, or as a curiosity. It steadfastly refuses to treat her as anything less than completely three-dimensional.

Outside of the two Annes, though, Gentleman Jack does struggle a bit with its subplots. A lot of screen time is spent with the servants of the Lister home, Shibden Hall, as well as with its tenants. The trouble is less that these scenes aren’t interesting, but more that it’s hard to tell what purpose they serve in Ms. Lister’s larger story. Because this isn’t really a show about the times or about Halifax—it’s about Anne Lister.

None of these stumbles detract from Anne as the centerpiece of the show. Thanks to Suranne Jones, she’s every bit as captivating as you’d imagine her to be; in fact, it almost feels like the show is seducing you, too. And you’d be wrong not to let it.

Gentleman Jack Trailer
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Sarah Gorr

Sarah Gorr is a film critic and copywriter based in Los Angeles. In her spare time she's crafting cocktails and working on her k/d. You can find her on Twitter at @sgorr and read more of her work at www.sarahgorr.com.

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